Academy of Art University School of Illustration Emeritus Director Chuck Pyle. Photo by Erasmo Guerra.
By Greta Chiocchetti
Before he taught in and went on to lead the same department he graduated from, Academy of Art University School of Illustration (ILL) Emeritus Director Chuck Pyle was an impressionable illustration student himself. It was in classes with one of his mentors, illustrator and former ILL Director Barbara Bradley, that he honed his passion for the arts.
“She would do three brush strokes or half a dozen lines of charcoal and absolutely blow you away, but at the same time she hid herself from us professionally—she was this hot-shot illustrator out in New York, but none of us knew about her career until after we had graduated,” recounted Pyle. “It was a learning experience for me on how to teach, when I was a student, that I just didn’t know at the time.”
Now an award-winning professional illustrator and painter with over four decades of experience, it was Pyle’s connections with his own instructors at the Academy that gave him the tools to pass his knowledge onto the next generation. Last summer, four decades as an instructor and 20 years as the ILL Director at the Academy, Pyle passed the torch to William Maughan.
In an interview with Art U News, Pyle spoke about his time at the Academy—both as a student and an instructor—and what his next chapter of learning will look like.
Did you ever anticipate that you’d teach?
No, I had absolutely no expectation of teaching. I got called because the illustration program doubled in size, and they [needed] people to teach some of the basic skills in the illustration school.
They called me in and told me they wanted me to teach a head drawing class. And I had to shadow Barbara Bradley—talk about intimidating—for a semester. Then they gave me a section of clothed figure drawing, and I taught those for a very long time—in fact, the clothed figure class, until I retired.
But I had no plans for that; it was just a nice and unexpected thing. Initially, teaching kept me socialized. If you’re an illustrator, you get on stuck deadlines, and you don’t see anybody for a long time. So, this would force me to get out of my studio and into the classroom and talk to people.
I have heard from students that the figure drawing classes are some of the most challenging. What have you learned from all your years of teaching that class?
The fascinating challenge of being a teacher is that students fall into categories, but every individual in any of those categories is unique. And the real challenge as a teacher is to get to know the student and their work well enough that you can find the key to help unlock their own progress. And that [means] constant digging to find a slightly new take on how you present what you present to them, to excite them and get them to take ownership of what they’re doing.
As someone who does it on a daily basis, I have an ease and a deep knowledge of things that a 19-year-old doesn’t. My job is to impart enough of that into them, to light a fire in them to want to get to that point of ease and mastery on their own—and make it their own, not to be a copy of how I do things, but to broaden their knowledge base out with a relentless curiosity and voraciousness of appetite to want to become a master on their own terms.
Once that momentum starts, you kind of run alongside them for a little ways, then they sprint away from you, off in their own direction, and you just stand back and applaud. Because from a teacher’s point of view, it’s always trying to figure out how to get that information through first, that passion second, and the encouragement for them to go there within themselves.
Were there any moments along the way where you experienced any self-doubt about being an instructor?
Oh, sure. You usually ask that about week eight in the semester when everybody’s got their midterm grades, and they’re now very [upset]. [Laughs]
I remember walking back into my office and just sort of putting my head in my hands going, ‘Oh my god,’ but then realizing that you either worked miracles or totally stuck your foot out, and you just have to fix it up and make it work. It’s a constant adventure. That part never got old. It’s this amazing, immense Rubik’s cube of 18 or 24 students and you are trying to move everything in there so it all lines up. And it’s never the same one.
But if you’re decent at it, you find it is constantly draining you out of a bucket that seems to magically refill itself. Because the reward is that you help young, promising talented people to realize their own potential and then run and do stuff with it. And that part is the restorative part—that stuff that happens in the moment with a kid in class can literally help shape the next 40 years of their life. And that is the reward. You don’t get paid for that in money—you get paid in the friendships that are formed and you get paid, particularly, with the reward of watching them become the success that they wanted to be.
You were a student at the Academy yourself. Which of your instructors inspired you the most?
Jim Sanford—he taught my senior year illustration classes. Jim was one of those who influenced us not to become little clones of Jim Sanford, but to become the best iterations of our own selves as we could be and did it with humor, and with grace and with humility, and allowed us to blossom. But behind all of that, was a very stern call to be the most professional artist you could be. And for some strange reason, Jim took it upon himself to give me an apprenticeship out of art school in his studio.
And of course, Barbara Bradley. Barbara was a very intentional teacher. She hid herself from us as a professional. She was a big-time New York illustrator that came out to California because her husband got an art director job in San Francisco. Us students never knew about her career, until years after she left New York—after we left art school, in fact, and she started getting some much-deserved recognition. It required digging into her history.
She kept her professional practice, by choice, hidden from us. She said, “I just didn’t think the kids would be interested in that.” And I own a couple of her original pieces in my personal art collection. I just stare at these things going, “My god. How could you not have shared this?” But only hinted. What she did was she shared everything that she knew. It was a learning experience for me as a student on how to teach—I just didn’t know at the time.
How has teaching art influenced you as a professional artist?
First off, it gives you permission to fail. If your students can screw up, so can you.
There’s also this great give-and-take between what a 20-year-old brings into the classroom to share with you what they think is cool—that you probably have never seen before—because the things that they grew up with that excite them are not the things that you grew up with.
The other thing is, you know, you always have to stay a little bit ahead of them. Because technologically speaking, aesthetically speaking, as each generation comes in the door, you sort of have to try and stay out ahead of them, to stay relevant, especially with all the digital trends.
What are some of the digital trends you’re noticing?
The mixed-media approach that the illustration program is, right now, digging deeper into—so, stuff that may start with a pencil drawing that ends up being 50/50 traditional media and digital tools. I’m having to bring that into my studio practice a lot more. I watch what my students do, and I kind of get clues from that. And it gives me permission to take small risks and learn some new stuff.
Also, in the last year and a half, I have not had one job come in the door that has not required me to paint things in pieces, put them in layers, and send them to clients in a file format. They tear them apart, animate the pieces, and use them for digital assets. And I’m not good enough as a Photoshop painter to match my own skills as a painter-illustrator. So I’ve had to make this weird compromise where the last step is done entirely digitally. But it means that I am no longer doing a painting–I am doing bits and pieces of paintings that get merged together as animatable or alterable units for multiple purposes. I would never have had that 10 years ago.
Illustrated works from Pyle are currently on display as part of the Petaluma Arts Center’s exhibition, “Integrating Practice: Celebrating Teaching Artists of the North Bay” through March 26.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.